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Chapter 33: illiteracy in America.

In Europe we hear so much about the public schools of America, that people are apt to fall into three distinct mistakes about American education. In the first place, they are apt to think there is an American school system, as there is an English school system; in the second place, they are apt to assume that American boys and girls are all at school, like Swiss boys and girls; in the third place, they are apt to conclude that American boys and girls are well taught as German boys and girls are well taught.

All these conclusions are erroneous, There is no American school system, as in England. Children are nowhere forced to be at school, as in Switzerland. Education is not universal and efficient, as in Germany.

With two exceptions, the republic, as a republic, pays no attention to the training of her [341] citizens. These two exceptions are the military and naval academies; the first at West Point in New York, the second at Annapolis in Maryland. These schools are small in size, and only touch the upper ranks of the public service. Training for the ordinary citizen is left by the republic to her several States, by each State to her several counties, and by each county, as a rule, to her several townships. Where a township has a city within her limits, she mostly leaves the training of that city to the citizens. So far from there being an American school system in America, it is not true to say there is a Pennsylvanian school system in Pennsylvania, or a New York school system in New York. There is an Excelsior system, and a Deadly Swamp system. On the Gulf of Mexico they have one system, in the Rocky Mountains a second system, in the New England region a third system. It is hardly an abuse of words to say there are as many school systems as there are townships in the United States.

In only five States out of thirty-nine is there a law in favour of compulsory attendance at school. These five States are New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Michigan, and New.York; but even in [342] these States the law is nowhere carried out with rigour, and the story of illiteracy in these five States is very dark.

In New Hampshire seven thousand persons are unable to read, nearly ten thousand persons are unable to write. In Connecticut twenty thousand persons cannot read, thirty thousand persons cannot write. In Michigan thirty-four thousand persons cannot read, fifty-three thousand persons cannot write. In New York State there are a hundred and sixty-three thousand persons who cannot read, nearly two hundred and forty thousand persons who cannot write!

These ignorant folks are not all strangers; Irish labourers, German boors, and African riff-raff Many of them are natives of the soil, born under the Republic, in a land of public schools. In New York, with her compulsory law of school attendance, more than seventy thousand of the natives cannot sign their names. In Massachusetts and Connecticut the tables of illiteracy are not so swollen as in New York: yet in Connecticut more than five thousand, in Massachusetts nearly eight thousand of the natives cannot write. In Michigan, a newly-settled State, [343] the two classes, natives and foreigners, are nearly equal in ignorance, there being twenty-two thousand natives to thirty thousand foreigners who cannot sign their names. One of the New Haven inspectors says that forty-one children in a hundred fail to attend school; so that nearly half the people in that noble city--one of the leading lights of civilization-are growing up in the moral darkness of Nigerines and Kickapoos. Texas has tried the compulsory system; but, having failed to get her lads and lasses into school by force, has gone back to her old plan of letting everybody do as he likes.

No other State or Territory in the Union cares to try a scheme of public teaching which requires the vigour of New England teachers and superintendents to conduct, and which three of the six New England States have either never adopted or have set aside. Some States require certificates of training, to be produced by parents and guardians, but these testimonials of proficiency are said to be hardly worth a straw. Americans who know their country as I know my house and garden tell me that the young generation of Americans are growing up more ignorant than their fathers thirty years ago. [344] In 1870 the number of persons in America who could not read was reported as more than four millions five hundred thousand; of those who could not write more than five million six hundred thousand souls.

Such facts are not explained by the theory of a great rush of illiterates from Europe or even from Asia.

Some illiterates come from Liverpool, Hamburg, and Hong-Kong, no doubt, but they are not enough to darken the tables of illiteracy very much. The German immigrants, as a rule, can read and write. The Mongol immigrants, as a rule, can read and write. I have never seen a male Chinese who could not read, and very few who could not write — in their own tongue. Out of sixty-three thousand Chinese reported in the census, six thousand are returned as illiterate, but in many towns, probably in most towns, illiteracy was taken by the census marshals to mean inability to read and write English--a rule under which Victor Hugo and Father Secchi would be classed as illiterate. Of course the poorer class of Irish help to swell the list. Pat is the “ bad lot” of American statists; for with [345] all his mirth and fire-his poetry, his sentiment, and his humour-he has few of the mechanical advantages of education. He can only make his mark, and swell the black list of the marshal's returns. Yet a vast majority of the illiterates in the census are American-born.

Out of the five million six hundred thousand persons in the Republic who cannot read and write only three quarters of a million are of foreign birth.

Of course, again, the Negroes count in these black lists; but Negroes are now citizens, with political rights. They count two millions and three-fourths. Red men and Yellow men add a little to the dark totals; yet, when all the Red, Yellow, and Black ignorance is deducted, there remain, as representing pure White ignorance, gross and pagan ignorance, no less than two million eight hundred thousand souls. Of this army of White barbarians in America, the census shows that more than two millions are American-born!

Such figures stun the mind. On looking into details, the enquirer is staggered to perceive that the older and richer States are no better educated than the rest. Nobody would expect to [346] find a shining literary light in Texas or New Mexico; but almost everyone would fancy that New York and Pennsylvania would in point of common schools hold their heads extremely high. Yet New York and Pennsylvania rank among the lowest of the pure White States. In New York there are nearly two hundred and forty thousand persons who cannot read and write, and Pennsylvania follows closely on her neighbour's heels. Virginia is, however, the greatest sinner. In a population of one million and a quarter she numbers nearly half-a-million of illiterates. Georgia, Tennessee, and the two Carolinas follow in her wake; Virginia, being the recognised leader of her Southern sisters. Whether she goes right or wrong, these States seem ready to go with Virginia into right or wrong.

To sum up all. The native Americans who cannot read and write amount to nearly five millions!

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